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Review of Climate Research by Exxon

By: Dr. Ricky Rood, 5:49 AM GMT on December 27, 2015

Review of Climate Research by Exxon

I want to do a little of my own review and record keeping of Exxon and their role in the scientific investigation of climate. The Exxon matter came up a few months ago, and I have mentioned it in several earlier blogs – most prominently in Oily, Contradictory, and Logical. Perhaps due to my more than normal searching and browsing of “Exxon,” the most prominent advertisements I currently get on websites are about Exxon’s embracing natural gas to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. I am being stalked.

The current focus on Exxon and its, seemingly, two-sided role in climate change grows out of a couple of sources. The first that I was made aware of was published in The Guardian in July 2015 and was widely publicized by a blog in Esquire (thanks Moriel). The Guardian article stated that Exxon scientists first started discussing climate change in 1981, and highlight that this was before the issue started to emerge prominently in public. The claim is made that Exxon made corporate decisions about developing resources at that time.

The second source is a project by students at Columbia Journalism School that was published, October 9, 2015, in the Los Angeles Times, What Exxon Knew about the Earth’s Melting Arctic. This article states that in the early 1990s Exxon was evaluating how melting in the Arctic would impact its operations, with projections reaching out 30-40 years. This sort of work is exactly like the scenario and infrastructure planning that we do today.

The Columbia work has taken on a life of its own. In early December there was a report on National Public Radio that Exxon “is demanding Columbia investigate the students …” The Journalism School’s dean, Steve Coll has a long history with Exxon and published the Book, “Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power”. The Journalism School’s web site contains a 6-page letter from ExxonMobil which protests that the work of the students violates numerous university policies. There is also a 6-page response from Coll, which states “What your letter advocates really is that the factual information accurately reported in the article, and unchallenged by you, be interpreted differently. But the themes you offer as alternative interpretations differ little in substance from what actually appears in the article.” Shortly after the article from the students at Columbia, the New York Attorney General announced an investigation into Exxon’s communications with its shareholders.

I was struck by a comment in the National Public Radio report made by Alan Jeffers of ExxonMobil, “We're a science-based company, and we take great affront to this allegation that we somehow lied about what we learned, covered it up and did junk science.” That sent me to the Los Angeles Times article to see if it actually accused Exxon of either “junk science” or covering up research. The article made no such accusations. I have met researchers at Exxon, all of them excellent researchers. Therefore, I was motivated to look a little more deeply into the climate research that Exxon and ExxonMobil published in the peer-reviewed scientific literature.

As I did in a previous blog, I went to The Web of Science, which is a standard of reference for peer-reviewed scientific literature. I did two searches. The first used, Topic = “climate” and Address = “Exxon.” The second used, Topic = “climate” and Address = “ExxonMobil.”

The search with “Exxon” as the address returned 39 publications dating from 1981 – 2013. The search with ‘ExxonMobil” returned 54 papers dating from 1999 – 2015. I did not go through each and every paper, so some of them might be a little off topic. I got copies of 7 of the papers, and I looked at abstracts from several more.

As a summary, there are a few early papers that are mainstream climate and climate-change research, including papers looking at variability in the historical records, paleoclimate. There are papers on ocean sequestration of carbon dioxide and Reduction of the Atmospheric Concentration of Methane as a Strategic Response Option to Global Climate Change. This research is reported in the same journals that my colleagues and I use, and it is performed in collaboration with researchers who I know. The papers I looked at were all solid scientific papers, and none of them challenged the fundamental science of climate change.

There are three publications that I comment on in a little more detail. The first paper is Evaporation-Limited Tropical Temperatures as a Constraint on Climate Sensitivity. This 1983 paper is a mainstream modeling paper, which uses models that, more than 30 years later, appear simple. They included evaporation in the model, which, compared to models without evaporation, lowered the temperature response in the tropics to increases in carbon dioxide. These model results contributed to the discussion on polar amplification, the prediction and now observed phenomenon that the poles warm more rapidly than the tropics. There are, in hindsight, some interesting nuances in how the model is placed in context. Overall, however, reading this paper is a nostalgic trip back to many of the now classic papers and authors that came out of that time.

The next paper I highlight is Advanced Technology Paths to Global Climate Stability: Energy for a Greenhouse Planet, published in Science Magazine in 2002. There are more than 1000 citations in Google Scholar and about 500 in the Web of Science, in either case, that is a large number of citations. This is review paper, which includes several luminaries of climate science, and the abstract ends, “We conclude that a broad range of intensive research and development is urgently needed to produce technological options that can allow both climate stabilization and economic development.”

The final publication I note is Human-Induced Climate Change: An Interdisciplinary Assessment, a 2007 book published by Cambridge University Press. Haroon Kheshghi, ExxonMobil’s Global Climate Change Program Leader, is one of the editors of this book. Kheshgi has published more than 50 peer-reviewed papers. This book is divided into four major sections, science, impacts and adaptation, mitigation, and policy and decision making under uncertainty – very mainstream.

Earlier, I wrote that a company like Exxon would be expected to have scientists doing research on an issue that might profoundly threaten its core businesses. Similarly, a company with the persistence and robustness of Exxon will have scientists assessing the state of the science and its broader implications. This scientific knowledge becomes a commodity to the corporation; it informs the business model.

Exxon and ExxonMobil have been quite open with the research that they have performed on climate and climate change. Their scientists have published reliably and consistently in the peer-reviewed literature for more that 3 decades. The research, practice, and presence of Exxon are not in the tradition of the behavior normally associated with climate denial. When it aligns with their business model, it will be easy for the corporation to present this research in a positive light. Maddeningly clever.


Doonesbury November 8, 2015

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The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.